No free NHS abortions in England for women from Northern Ireland, court rules

More than 1,000 women come over every year to escape stricter laws

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A landmark case that could have allowed women from Northern Ireland to receive free NHS abortions in England has failed at the High Court.

Mr Justice King upheld the current laws that mean women who come over to bypass stricter rules on terminations must pay for the procedure.

A test case was brought by a teenager, referred to as “A” for legal reasons, who was 15 when she became pregnant and travelled to Manchester to have an abortion.

She had been denied a termination by medical authorities in Northern Ireland, where abortion is only legal in exceptional circumstances if the life or long-term health of the pregnant woman is at risk.

In October 2012, she and her mother travelled to a Marie Stopes clinic, where the operation cost £600 on top of travel costs of £300.

Half of the funding was provided by the Abortion Network, a voluntary organisation, but the mother said “the whole experience and stress” of raising the funds as “harrowing”.

She said in a statement to the court: “Had we known from the outset that we would be able to travel to the UK and that A could have the procedure free on the NHS, this would have significantly reduced the stress and trauma she experienced.”

After taking legal advice in England, she believed that publicly-funded health care services “are intended to be free at the point of use for all UK residents” and that if they had travelled to England for another health condition, treatment would have been free.

She added: “I feel my daughter has been treated most unfairly, because when she required treatment in another part of the United Kingdom she did not get it, and was offered no assistance by the state health care system.”

But the judge said the mother had misunderstood the legal position.

Mr Justice King told the court the differences in the legal position had “not surprisingly led to a steady stream” of pregnant women from Northern Ireland to England to access abortion services not available to them at home.

But he ruled that the Health Secretary's duty to promote a comprehensive health service in England “is a duty in relation to the physical and mental health of the people of England” and that duty did not extend “to persons who are ordinarily resident in Northern Ireland” except in emergency cases.

Mr Justice King told the court the latest Department of Health statistics, from 2011, showed more than 1,000 women from Northern Ireland had abortions in England.

The majority were in fee-charging independent clinics but five were provided free on the NHS.

The judge said the legal challenge was to the legislative framework under the 2006 NHS Act for the provision of medical and health care services "through the NHS in England", as distinct from services in other parts of the UK.

The residence-based system reflected "the separation of powers between the health services in the four jurisdictions in the UK" - England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The women's solicitor said were are trying to take the case to the Court of Appeal.

Angela Jackman, from Maxwell Gillott, added: "Why should women from Northern Ireland have to pay for this health service in England despite being UK citizens? And what are women in Northern Ireland who need terminations supposed to do if they cannot afford to pay privately for the service in England?"

Northern Ireland did not subscribe to the 1967 Abortion Act, which liberalised the procedure in the rest of the UK, and the issue is a subject of frequent political debate.

For years, women’s organisations, pro-choice and sexual health groups have been pushing for a relaxation of the laws, arguing that the current situation pushes women into buying dangerous and illegal abortion pills, spending thousands travelling to other countries, and forces them to have children they cannot cope with financially or mentally.

Dawn Purvis, the director of Marie Stopes Northern Ireland said the organisation was "hugely disappointed" at the ruling.

She added: "The added layer of stress involved in finding the money to travel and pay for treatment can be crippling, making an already difficult situation for a woman that much tougher. "

Additional reporting by PA

Read more:
First private abortion clinic opens in Northern Ireland
Welcome to Belfast, Marie Stopes